Partition-era debate on who is Indian has been reopened by the citizenship bill, with grave consequences

  • The citizenship bill is built on the claim that Hindu and Sikh victims of Partition deserve fast-track citizenship for the same reason earlier generations received it in 1949

  • The argument is, however, flawed. There's no doubt that the situation of Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan is fundamentally different from their Muslim counterparts

  • There's no doubt, either, that the suffering of refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh is an excellent argument for asylum, and humane treatment

Each time the angel of history awakened the dead, and made whole what had been smashed: those that had been battered, for generations, in wars against the Delhi sultans, against the fiefdoms of Naurang Mandi, Dabwali and Mor Sadarni. As also against the great famine which drove them from Delhi to the small village in Gujjranwala which would become their home. Then, in 1947, a great tide of blood washed over this village, now named Mannwala, transforming their fate forever.

In August 1949, Bhopinder Singh Mann stood before India's Constituent Assembly, attempting to explain why the new republic’s citizenship laws were unfair to millions like him, who had found themselves on the wrong side of history.

"I do not understand," he said, "why 19 July, 1948 has been prescribed for the purpose of citizenship... There may be victims of communal frenzy in our neighbouring State hereafter; it is not only a possibility but a great probability in the present circumstances." The feudal lord-turned-refugee concluded, "It will be very cruel to shut our borders to those who are victimised after 19 July, 1948. They are as much sons of the soil as anyone else."

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is, at its heart, a reopening the debate Mann lost three generations ago — a debate waged around the rights of ignored Partition refugees, but with far wider implications for what it meant to be Indian. Behind the verbal ornaments, the bill is dressed up in, it’s built on an ideological claim: That Hindus everywhere are part of one nation.


Home Minister Amit Shah is right: We wouldn't be having this debate if the Congress hadn't agreed to Partition on religious lines in the first place. He's also being more than a little economical with the truth. The Congress wasn't the only major political force unwilling to fight for a united India. In 1942, the Communist Party of India expressed support for what it called "the just essence of the Pakistan demand". And so, most important, did the Hindu nationalists who laid the foundations for Shah's rise to power.

In a 24 December, 1924 article in The Tribune, the Hindu Mahasabha leader Lala Lajpat Rai advocated for "four Muslim States: (1) The Pathan Province or the North-West Frontier; (2) Western Punjab (3) Sindh and (4) Eastern Bengal”. He said, "If there are compact Muslim communities in any other part of India sufficiently large to form a province, they should be similarly constituted."

 Partition-era debate on who is Indian has been reopened by the citizenship bill, with grave consequences

File image of activists staging a protest rally against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in Guwahati. PTI

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the ideological patriarch of the Hindutva movement, went down the two-nation theory road decades before the Muslim League. India, he argued, had two nationalities, Hindu and Muslim — one bound to India "by the bonds of the love they bear to a common motherland but also by the bonds of a common blood"; the other, "whose names and their outlook smack of a foreign origin", their love is "divided".

Savarkar argued Hindutva movement was "trying our best, as we ought to do, to develop the consciousness of and a sense of attachment to the greater whole, whereby Hindus, Mohammedans, Parsis Christians, and Jews would feel as Indians first and every other thing afterwards."

But, until then, he asserted, "the future of India is bound up in the last resort, with Hindu strength... Therefore even from the point of Indian nationality, must ye, O Hindus, consolidate and strengthen Hindu nationality — not to give wanton offence to any of our non-Hindu compatriots, in fact to any one in the world — but in just and urgent defence of our race and land."

For Savarkar, unlike Lajpat Rai, there was no question of dividing India. Savarkar, BR Ambedkar responded in a sharp critique, argued "that in Austria and Turkey there lived one major nation juxtaposed to other minor nations bound by one constitution with the major nation dominating the minor nations, and argues that if this was possible in Austria and Turkey, why should it not be possible for the Hindus to do the same in India."

Ambedkar went on: "If Savarkar, instead of studying the past — of which he is very fond — was to devote more attention to the present, he would have learnt that old Austria and old Turkey came to ruination for insisting upon maintaining the very scheme of things which Savarkar has been advising his ‘Hindudom’ to adopt, namely, to establish a Swaraj in which there will be two nations under the mantle of one single constitution in which the major nation will be allowed to hold the minor nation in subordination to itself."

For his part, Ambedkar skewered the intellectual basis of Pakistan. He understood, though, that there was enough popular support for this terrible idea to have become irresistible: "it would be a folly not to face what is inevitable and face it with courage and common sense. Equally would it be a folly to lose the part one can retain in the vain attempt of preserving the whole."


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea of who ought be Indian was contested through the course of the Constituent Assembly debates on citizenship.  PS Deshmukh demanded that "every person who is  a Hindu or a Sikh and is not a citizen of any other State shall be entitled to be a citizen of India." He continued, "If the Muslims want an exclusive place for themselves called Pakistan, why should not Hindus and Sikhs have India as their home?" There were others who did not want Muslims who had left India in 1947, only to return later, to be granted citizenship.

Eight lakh Indians in Malaya, lakhs more in Ceylon and Burma; even the Indians of South Africa and Caribbean: Some in the Constituent Assembly wanted them to all enjoy an automatic right of return.

Like many others, Bhopinder Mann blamed the Congress' resistance on a "weak kind of secularism". The arguments against weren’t, however, simply ideological: Newly-independent, cash-strapped India just couldn’t soak up infinite numbers of refugees. Perhaps more important, open-ended citizenship offer would just make it that much easier for East Pakistan to push ever-more Hindu refugees out.

Perhaps most important, Partition had to end somewhere — and the business of building a new nation-state that had learned from its past had to begin.

Amit Shah was flat-out wrong in claiming Muslims aren’t persecuted in Islamic States like Afghanistan and Pakistan. The massacres of ethnic Hazara by the Taliban and the Islamic State exceed in their barbarism anything the Hindus of Bangladesh have faced in recent decades; Pakistan’s constitutionally-mandated oppression of Ahmadi Muslims, which led it to even desecrate the grave of the country's only Nobel Prize winner, defies description.

There’s no getting away from this, though: Partition never ended for many Hindus in India’s near-neighbourhood.  Bangladesh’s Hindu population declined from 22 percent in 1951 to nine percent in 2011. Although persecution isn’t the sole reason for that decline — careful statistical analysis by scholars M Moinuddin Haider, Mizanur Rahman and Nahid Kamal demonstrates lower birth-rates were the primary driver — there’s little doubt millions have left Bangladesh fearing religion-inspired violence.

The trend of diminishing population has sharply reversed under Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s secular rule, rising from eight to 10 percent — but governments change, and many Bangladeshi Hindus remain apprehensive about their future.

In Pakistan, Partition was far more thorough: From an estimated 14 percent of the population in 1941 , the Hindu population came down to just 1.3 percent in 1951 — evidence of ethnic cleansing with few parallels in history.  Even though their population has since grown, Hindus still face institutional discrimination and savage violence — documented by journalists like Marvi Sirmed. Thousands have sought refuge in India, often overstaying pilgrimage visas.

Afghanistan’s Hindu and Sikh communities have all but disappeared: according to the scholar Ehsan Shayegan, the numbers have fallen from 700,000 in the 1970s to less than 7,000 now. Though there were no large-scale massacres targeting the tiny communities, Hindus and Sikhs were forced to wear distinguishing labels under Taliban rule.

In essence, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is built on the claim that Hindu and Sikh victims of Partition deserve fast-track citizenship for the same reason earlier generations received it in 1949. The argument is, however, profoundly flawed. There’s no doubt that the situation of Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan is fundamentally different from their Muslim counterparts. There’s no doubt, either, that the suffering of refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh is an excellent argument for asylum, and humane treatment.

But has no bearing at all on fast-track citizenship. Indian Hindus might feel compassion, even rage, at the treatment of Bangladeshi Hindus or Pakistani Hindus — as any right-thinking human being should. There should be no doubt, however, that these are foreigners.


Like so many thinkers of the last century, Savarkar’s idea of nationhood rested on blood and race: from nationalists to fascists to progressive, racial eugenics were seen as the key to building utopia. But, Savarkar knew the blood-cult he was proposing as a foundation for Hindu nationhood was, like all ideologies, pure fiction.  There was, he wrote, only "a single race — the human race kept alive by one common blood, the human blood".

"Nature is constantly trying to overthrow the artificial barriers you raise between race and race," Savarkar went on, "Sexual attraction has proved more powerful than all the commands of all the prophets put together."

Ironically, this was precisely the vision of the new Indian State: A republic where citizens would chart their destinies as individuals, their rights free of their membership of religious communities.

Founding claims to Indian citizenship on faith — which is what the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill does — is fraught with peril. In Assam and Tripura, it's already led to violence against Bengali migrants — Hindu and Muslim, immigrants and simply settlers — long resented by indigenous communities. The tide of ethnic rage unleashed by the government’s decision to offer Bengali Hindu immigrants fast-track citizenship also threatens to revive Assam’s dormant insurgent movement.

Perhaps most important, Partition hasn't ended in India, any more than it has in Bangladesh or Pakistan. The French scholars Violette Graff and Juliette Galonnier have painstakingly chronicled Indian communal riots from 1947 to 2011: Thousands, preponderantly Muslim, have been killed in pogroms, often abetted by the State. For many Muslims, the bill is evidence their faith disqualifies them from being fully Indian; forever be outsiders in a Hindu nation.

From litigating Partition again, it's no great journey to the next one: The gates to Perdition are now open, and only great wisdom can stop India from marching into its embrace.

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Updated Date: Dec 11, 2019 11:25:21 IST